***½/**** Image A Sound A Extras C+
starring Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Tim Roth, Dougray Scott
screenplay by Rafael Yglesias, based on the novel by Koji Suzuki
directed by Walter Salles
by Walter Chaw Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) is having a nightmare. Dark water's flooding into the ramshackle apartment she's been forced to rent with young daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade) now that husband Kyle (Dougray Scott) has left her for another woman, where she encounters the visage of her spiteful alcoholic mother. Connelly's performance throughout, but especially within these few seconds, is so complex, so almost-physically wrenching, that the knowledge that Dark Water was badly-marketed, critically-savaged, and largely-ignored stings all the more. Specifically, the moment in question underscores how far from the usual supernatural thriller this picture aspires to be: a ghost story in which the hauntings are golems of the soul instead of ectoplasm, cold spots, and rattling chains. In many ways, Dark Water works as an update of Jack Clayton's The Innocents, another story of a single woman in a strange place, beset by children and other reptiles of the spirit. And in return, that image of corrupt water invading a woman's place of sanctuary with her daughter, already laden with archetype, gets a bracing shot of genre smarts.
A remake of a film directed by Hideo Nakata (Ringu) and a novel by Koji Suzuki (also Ringu), Dark Water came with expectations it's not able to satisfy. Although, like The Ring (the American counterpart to Ringu, of course), it deals with gynaecological discomfort and the outer limits of maternal instinct and responsibility, Dark Water isn't interested in jump scares so much as it is in the dread of encroachment from without. It joins Spielberg's War of the Worlds in tapping that cultural vein as well as the likes of Flightplan in their stories of women accused of the traditional woman's ailment "hysteria" while trying to defend their daughters. The loss of a child, the (possibly sexual) destruction of home and hearth--the picture is as invasive to traditional feminine succour as Roman Polanski's sex- and location-based Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby. Brazilian director Walter Salles follows up his elegiac Ché road trip The Motorcycle Diaries with something like a masterpiece of mood and, if there is such a thing in mainstream narrative film, the feminine point-of-view.
With proximity to her husband, affordability, and good schools in mind, the first part of Dark Water takes an unusual amount of time with Dahlia's apartment search. She ends up on Roosevelt Island in a rundown, rent-controlled tenement community that reminds me of the setting for Harlan Ellison's forlorn "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs," evoking the indifferent caprice of New York City and, specifically, the murder of Kitty Genovese. Salles positions Dahlia between three hostile men--her accusatory husband, unctuous slumlord (John C. Reilly), and hostile super (Pete Postlethwaite)--in a seeping, filthy, misrepresented, and hard-sold environment; allows her a subsistence job as a receptionist in a radiology lab; and proposes the possibility that the trauma of her situation has exacerbated her migraine attacks and, worse, led to mental instability in her daughter. The question posed is whether Dahlia's paranoia is a product of pathology or common sense--and the answer is that a woman by herself is confronted with challenges that manifest as challenges to her competence and threats to her gender.
Salles magnifies this with a pair of toughs to sexually harass her in the bowels of the apartment and more slyly in the form of heroic Platzer (Tim Roth), a lawyer without an office or a definite fee (both symbols of paternalistic power wielded by Dahlia's ex) who proves his worth to Dahlia in unravelling the film's central mystery. Platzer, though, fabricates a family and pressing familial obligations--perhaps in part to extricate himself from too close an attachment to Dahlia, but mainly, we surmise, because the screenplay by Rafael Yglesias (the writer behind one of the best American films of the '90s, Fearless) is interested in how an idea of family is often more powerful than an actual connection to one. It's that idea which drives the final act of Dark Water, as it's revealed that a child (Perla Haney-Jardine, the same actress playing young Dahlia in flashback) has died in the apartment above Dahlia and Ceci's place in circumstances that mirror Dahlia's own--and that her spirit has formed an attachment (or Dahlia has imagined one from a photograph she discovers in the empty apartment) to Dahlia she demands be honoured. Nuanced, difficult, patient with itself, Dark Water is a mature film about the courage it takes to survive in a mortal world that's dependent on temporary relationships.
Touchstone presents Dark Water unrated on DVD in a vibrant 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer* free of pixellation or streaking--artifacts you'd have every right to expect with a film this moodily lit. It's a beautiful-looking piece and much of its "filmic" quality is honoured by deep emerald greens and shocking levels of detailed black. Connelly's complexion, especially--not ashen so much as porcelain and precious--is a focal point for Salles, and so the picture looks a lot like the Dario Argento film the Italian Hitchcock would still be making had he only not lost his mind (and control of his Jung) somewhere along the line of his own Jennifer Connelly vehicle, Phenomena (a.k.a. Creepers). The DD 5.1 audio is resonant and particularly faithful to the lower bass tones. In a film without a lot of aural pyrotechnics, the force of the climax caused me to reach for the volume control--and not necessarily in a good way: if there's a reason this film doesn't get a full rating from me, it's the overuse--often to the detriment of dialogue and ambients--of Angelo Badalamenti's otherwise atmospheric score. It feels for the entire world like there were some Nervous Nellies in post-production going for artificial shock tactics. The aggregate's the thing, and the scoring betrays that--though that's neither here nor there in terms of this track's fidelity. It should be mentioned that the film on board this disc is advertised as being both unrated and "enhanced" for home theatres, referring to the soundmix. Having seen Dark Water three times now (twice at the cinema and once at home), I confess I'm flummoxed as to what the differences are.
It's a shame, too, that the bonus features don't really add up to a hill of beans. "Beneath the Surface: The Making of Dark Water" (16 mins.) is the typical making-of documentary, with Salles giving his opinion of what the film is about--something he will return to do in most of the subsequent featurettes. Interviews with Yglesias confirm speculation that the picture was meant as a character-/psychologically-driven piece, while producer Bill Mechanic name-checks Don't Look Now in addition to the two Polanskis (Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby). Salles seems a bright guy--wish he'd done a commentary, maybe even with Connelly (radiant in her interview segments) at his side, instead. "The Sound of Terror" (7 mins.) interviews re-recording mixer Scott Millan, supervisor/director Frank Gaeta, associate editor Maria Montoreano, and Salles about the sound design. (The words "dismal" and "dreary" are used freely.) Two "Deleted Scenes" (totalling 2 minutes) find Dahlia venting about discovering a key Hello Kitty! backpack in a basement laundry (in addition to a quick homage to Phil Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and spotlight an extended explanation of Ceci's decision to revisit the haunted high-rise in the epilogue. During the film proper, I did wonder at the wisdom of the little girl's return--but after looking at the scene that explains it all, it's pretty clear that the picture benefits from this excision.
Continuing: "Extraordinary Ensemble" (26 mins.) is an extended chat with the titular extraordinary ensemble assembled for this picture. All of them say the usual things people say when asked to speak of co-workers on-camera for DVD bonus features and HBO mini-specials. Salles does have a weird monologue wherein he states that 50% of a film's success is contingent on the actors, 50% on the crew, and 50% on the screenplay (and 50% on not very good at math)--but I did appreciate the space devoted to Yglesias's process and theory of the picture. (Maybe all his pictures? Consider "metaphors for extreme emotional states.") His idea of how to translate the film from its Asian roots to this Western iteration is altogether too brief but no less interesting. Too many clips from the film and too much self-congratulation mar the piece, however; I wonder if the only way to get around the politicking of stuff like this is to wait thirty years. Still, it's good for what it is, and I love Salles's idea that film should be imperfect, lest the audience be shut out of consideration of it. Though I wasn't a huge fan of The Motorcycle Diaries, I'm beginning to be a huge fan of Walter Salles. "Analyzing Dark Water Scenes" (6 mins. total) sees various crewmembers discussing three short scenes from the film--one noting that the set was slightly elevated so that it could be flooded without wetting the hallways, and another gushing about how effective a peculiarly unexceptional scene is. Inserting the disc prompts Buena Vista's usual lengthy trailer reel: this one includes spots for Sin City, Annapolis, Flightplan, Everything You Want, Shadows in the Sun, "Lost"Season Two, and Shopgirl. They round out the platter. Originally published: January 12, 2006.
*Alternate fullscreen edition rated PG-13.